Beehive Fence Internship, Tsavo

Blog by International Intern, Averil Sweeney

I arrived in Nairobi about five weeks ago and was whisked off to Sagalla Hill in what felt like only moments after I landed. I was transfixed when I first arrived at the Elephant and Bees Research Camp. Placed right underneath Sagalla Hill, the center has the perfect view of the rugged Tsavo scrubby bush land. I hadn’t been outside of the land rover for more then five minutes before I was greeted by our five very happy and excited dogs, furiously waging their tails with excitement at this strange newcomer.

I spent my first two days at the center getting to know my way around, and learning more about my responsibilities for the project. I was eager to see one of Dr. Lucy King’s beehive fences in the flesh and was elated when I learned I’d be helping take notes and updating each farmer’s beehive files.

My first day in the field was a great introduction to the beehive fences. Wilson, one of Dr. Lucy’s oldest field guides, took Katherine, Lydia, (my two fellow interns) and me to three different beehive fence shambas to do routine clean-ups and record management on the hives.

Ambrose’s shamba was the first stop. Ambrose is a small man, standing only about five feet tall, and is exceedingly polite and cheerful. His beehive fence is one of the original fences in the Sagalla area, erected in 2009 with eighteen Kenyan top-bar hives (while new farms typically receive twelve langstroth beehives.) His shamba is located close to the main road that separates Tsavo East NP from the Sagalla region, making it a prime target for elephant crop-raiders.

We had already gone through about ten of the hives, opening each one to check to if the hives were clean, and evicting some unwanted tenants like wasps and ants. It was still early, no more the 9:30, but the heat was already beginning to build. Lethargic from the rising heat, we found ourselves moving a little more slowly to each hive. We approached the hive with a big number ten painted on it with a slight hint of gratitude, just three more hives until we could move on to the next farm. Ambrose had only two occupied hives at the time and we had made an effort to avoid those hives (no one wants a disturbed and angry swarm of African honey bees on their tail).

Wilson approached the front of the tenth hive and started untangling the wires bonding the lid to the hive. My fellow interns and I stood behind the beehive and watched as Wilson carefully lifted the lid. In a split second, he took a huge leap backwards and screamed “RUN”.

All three of the interns took off in the opposite direction, running from what we thought was an angry swarm of honey bees. I had run about ten feet away from the beehive before I noticed the absence of the tell tale sign that you’ve disturbed a swarm of bees; the buzzing. I stopped, exhausted by the heat, to turn around. Wilson was standing by the hive, unable to control his giddy laughter.

“It was a little snake! It fell out of the hive and crawled away into the bushes.” He lifted a finger and pointed behind my head. Clear across the shamba, past the beehive fence stood my two fellow interns having only just stopped running. In a matter of moments they had ran about fifty feet, unphased by the oppressive heat. They stood in the distance, poised to run again if need be, waiting for a sign that the angry bees were headed their way. Unable to control his laughter, Wilson waved Katherine and Lydia back to the hive.

“All we heard was Wilson scream “run!” And I just kept running because Lydia kept running.” “All I knew was that somebody was behind me running, so I just kept running!” “I don’t even remember sliding under the wire of fence”. Laced with humor, Lydia and Katherine spent the rest of the morning explaining away their unnecessary dash to safety.

The rest of the morning seemed to fly by after that. After we visited each of Ambrose’s hives we made our way to Jennifer’s shamba. Jennifer is a grandmother, helping to raise her two grandchildren. Living only feet away from Ambrose’s shamba, Jennifer faced many of the same crop-raiding elephants that plagued Ambrose.

Jennifer’s fence is much newer then Ambrose’s, so it is made up of the typical twelve langstroth beehives with dummy hive between each beehives. The dummy hives act as a visual warning to the elephants. They look very similar to the actual hives, and they do not prevent the bees from becoming irritated if the fence is agitated by elephants. Adding the dummy hives allows us to build fences that cover a greater portion if the shambas perimeter, and also help to make the fence look much more intimidating to incoming elephants.

The rest of the morning was calm and devoid of any further snake interactions. The first two weeks in September saw all of our energy being poured into beehive fence upkeep. We would visit two or three shambas a day, keeping meticulous details of the state of the hives and assisting the farmers in cleaning them. September typically marks the end of the dry season in Kenya, and October is the start of the short rains. Everyone at the elephants and bees research center has been working hard to prepare for the rains to come.

During the dry season farmers see fewer beehive occupations than during the rainy season, usually due to the lack of flowering plants in the area. Once the wet season comes and flowers and trees are in full bloom, the hope is that honey bees will come in hordes looking to exploit the new foliage. Our goal is to have these honey bees make our hives their new homes. In order to entice the bees into our beehive fences, my fellow interns, field guides and I have been putting fresh wax into the hives.

Fixing wax in hive

Photo: Fixing a fresh strip of bees wax into the brood chamber can help to attract new bee colonies looking for a new home.

The wax attracts the bees with its beautiful smell and remade worker cells. We have spent the past three weeks visiting every shamba and meticulously attaching the wax to the wooden bars of the hive. Some mornings, when the sun was hot, the thick wax would soften, making it easier to attach to the hive. Those days would require less then an hours worth of effort. Other days, if we left to early or the clouds blocked the rays of the sun, the wax would stay stiff and required us the use the tips of our thumbs to manipulate the wax onto the bars.

Although the physical work needed to keep up with the beehives can be challenging, it all makes up for it when we wake up in the mornings and hear of elephants roaming through the shambas only to find they have avoided shambas with beehive fences.

With September past, we are hopeful that the rains will come sooner rather than later. Each day we continue to assist farmers with their hive work, in hopes that each hive is occupied during the rains.

Interns with new tents

Photo: Our Elephants and Bees Interns, Katherine, Averil and Lydia in front of one of the intern tents recently sponsored by The Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust (EKCT)

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